Places/Conferences Words

Malice Domestic 2010: A Post-Mortem

To say I enjoyed my first Malice Domestic seems a bit of an understatement. Hard to believe I can write it off on my taxes! Here are a few notes:

I enjoyed seeing the honored guests, Mary Higgins Clark and William Link, willingly and graciously interacting with fans and other authors. Despite many successful years in the business (it’s not as if they need to market themselves as unknown authors must do), they seem to still enjoy and appreciate the respect and affection with which they’re regarded, and they gave generously of their time. Both seemed to have a great sense of humor and an indefatigable zest for telling great stories.

Malice Go-Round: It’s Like Speed-Dating With Authors was a lot of fun. Audience members sat at tables, and as a moderator started the time, a pair of authors would come to the table and pitch their books (one at a time, about a minute each) and hand out goodies such as bookmarks, candy, and even a cupcake-shaped lipgloss. It was loud, crazy, and a great introduction to the newer authors. I made three piles of handouts– buy now, buy later, and maybe not. It was nice but dangerous that the dealer room was right around the corner so we could purchase books immediately.

From the Poison Lady, Luci Zahray, I learned that I have enough toxins growing wild in my yard to paralyze half the county. And enough in my medicine basket to kill most of the state. Fortunately, I’m pretty busy this month, so you’re probably safe. Great way to kill off a character, though.

In a panel discussing how tough topics can be addressed in cozy mysteries, I observed once again how “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Not too many people have feedlots and bovine growth hormones, schoolyard bullying, or prescription drug abuse on their recreational reading list, but if they read cozies, they learn about them in a context and way that makes them understandable and real. The authors on this panel, Avery Aames-M, JoAnna Carl, Kate Collins, Katherine Hall Page, and Maggie Sefton, were passionate about their topic, and they’ve chosen an excellent way to share their concerns.

The Whydunit panel (Pat Remick-M, Joan Boswell, Ellen Hart, Louise Penny, and Cynthia Riggs) discussed motives. Unfortunately, I was standing in back as room monitor, so didn’t get notes. The idea that sticks with me from this session is that every character must have a “why.” Even the most despicable criminal has a reason for his/her behavior, and it’s up to the author to convey this convincingly.

The Red Herring panel (Jane K. Cleland-M, Peggy Ehrhart, Betty Hechtman, Tracy Kiely, and Joanna Campbell Slan) had a great list of possible red herrings that could misdirect a reader’s attention. The critical thing here was that red herrings must seem like clues until the end, and authors must play fair with the reader. It was interesting to hear what sort of misdirection each author used– there are a lot more available than just the classics!

In the Thrills and Chills panel (Debbi Mack-M, Austin S. Camacho, Barbara D’Amato, John F. Dobbyn, Thomas Kaufman) the panelists each read a bit from their book. I headed directly to the dealer’s room to buy two of the books (and no, I’m not telling which!). It was interesting to hear how each of the writers settled on The Idea That Must Be Written, and the way that each approached the writing process. One of the panelists (John Dobbyn, if I remember correctly) offered a very helpful definition: A cozy mystery or puzzle story keeps the mind racing; a thriller keeps your heart racing. It’s important to know which you’re writing!

The Town and Country panel (Clyde Linsley-M, Lila Dare, R.J. Harlick, Con Lehane, Ilene Schneider) focused on how setting affects what you write and how you write it. Each author strategically chose his or her setting to frame the characters in the story. There’s a lot of truth in “you are where you live,” and while human nature has common elements, plot twists are necessarily affected by setting. A small town provides different motives and opportunities for murder and sleuthing than does a big city. If you’re going to write a mystery, be sure you like your setting (and your characters)!

Agatha Awards

I tweeted these (with a couple of typos) as they were announced at the Agatha Banquet, so if you are one of my Twitter followers, you got it almost live. Being there was such fun, as the crowd was enthusiastic and supportive.
  • Best Children’s/Young Adult: The Hanging Hill by Chris Grabenstein
  • Best Short Story: “On the House” by Hank Phillippi Ryan
  • Best Nonfiction: Dame Agatha’s Shorts by Elena Santangelo
  • Best First Novel: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
  • Best Novel: The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny

The goodie bags we received upon arrival were delightful– 11 new books, copies of Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock mystery magazines, a wonderful “Malice at-a-glance” mini-guide, and a nice program with good articles. I wondered why there was a second nice big tote bag included in the goodie bag, but I found out. Not only did we collect endless bookmarks and memorabilia from authors, there was the book swap at the end. People and publishers put out give-away books, and you could take what you wanted to read.

Contributors to the goodie bags were Felony & Mayhem Press, Simon & Schuster, Berkeley Prime Crime, Obsidian Mysteries, Crippen and Landru, American Girl Press, Harper Collins Publishers, Minotaur Books, Midnight Ink, Poisoned Pen Press, Soho Press, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I’m grateful to each of them for supporting the conference and helping to make it a very special event.

One final note: Covers matter. During the Malice-Go-Round, I heard of several books that sounded great. I went to look at them in the dealer area, and bought a few. Others sounded great, but the cover was somehow unappealing, and when I saw it, I didn’t even feel like picking it up to read the back.

I did buy one book that sounded good in the pitch and had a horrible, self-published-looking cover. The author did a great job pitching and the storyline was unusual, so I bought it despite the hideous cover. The cover was so embarrassingly bad that when I was reading it over lunch, I made sure it wasn’t visible to other diners. I realize that I’m a very visual person, so it may not matter as much to someone else, but whatever you do, just hope that your publisher hires a great cover artist. If it hadn’t been for the author pitching it live, I’d have never picked it up.

Malice Domestic involves a lot of volunteer hours. Thanks to the dedication and hard work of board members and many others, it’s a delightful event and well worth the trip (the vendors are great too). Next year’s Malice will be April 29-May 1, and will be held in Bethesda, MD. Enjoy!

Inspiration Words Writing

I Walk the Line (with apologies to Johnny Cash)

There’s a fine line between creative and commercial writing, and I find myself trying to walk it every day. I work on fiction at least four days a week, and I write non-fiction every day. My goal for each polished piece is to write the best prose I can with the information, knowledge, and resources I have at that moment. Even when I do so, I’m aware that when I look back at any piece from a few month’s distance, I’ll see things I could have done differently. It’s all in the growth of a writer. Blog posts are ephemeral thought collectors that don’t receive the same attention as polished pieces, but they too remind me to be aware of words and how they’re used.

I recently spoke with a budding author who was lamenting the need to find a job, though her novel wasn’t quite finished. Because I know she writes well, I suggested that instead of getting a job, she earn could earn what she needed through copywriting. I wasn’t surprised when she demurred, commenting that she didn’t want to ruin her writing voice.

It’s a fear I’ve encountered many times, but I believe it’s a bogey without much substance. There are creative elements in almost any writing, including all types of commercial writing. Budding ad writers everywhere are probably still advised to be creative and “sell the sizzle, not the steak” (that onomatopoeia is a bit of poetry in itself). Compelling prose is an art form, no matter where it’s found.

If you focus on each assignment, whether commercial or literary, as an opportunity to sharpen word choice, increase sentence fluency, and generally improve your craft, I believe your writing voice will be strengthened by the additional practice. And quite frankly, I feel wickedly gleeful at the thought of being paid to practice an art I love. Yet why not? Master craftsman often serve paid apprenticeships while learning their craft, and it’s a time-tested training method.

As I go back and forth between projects, I’ve found that the greatest challenge is to retain a touch of freshness in everything. Whether I’m reading a how-to or a whodunit, I want to be captivated a deft turn of phrase and charmed or chilled by a precise word choice. That’s an experience I’d like my readers to enjoy as well. Dull prose with a written-by-committee flavor is a good cure for insomnia, or for puppy training, but not for much else.

It may take a moment’s extra thought to choose a vivid word or bypass a worn-out cliche in favor of an unexpected zing, but it’s a moment well spent. I’m not always successful at meeting the freshness challenge (those pesky deadlines and the occasional bouts of verbal laziness catch up with me sometimes), but it’s something I strive for, no matter which side of the proverbial line I’m writing on.


I’m reading Robert Hartwell Fiske’s little gem, Silence, Language, and Society: A guide to style and meaning, grace and compassion. It’s a vividly personal compendium of brief observations, prescriptions, and imprecations, all related to the art of words. So far, the overall theme of the book might be summed up in a single phrase: “You are what you say.” I like that thought, as it acknowledges the power of words to shape reality.

Fiske is the editor and publisher of the wonderful Vocabula Review. If you have a subscription, don’t miss Richard Lederer’s wonderful article on “The Word Magic of Lewis Carroll” in the current issue. (One of NAIWE‘s benefits is that members may subscribe free, and it’s one benefit that I’m thoroughly enjoying!)

I’m inspired to write better by reading great writing and reading about the art of words. What inspires you?

Inspiration Words

March 4th- National Grammar Day- A Song is Worth….

A song is worth a thousand words, (though it’s still Words Matter Week, so words are worth something too).

It’s a downright singable song– I can see it playing in schools across the land, with good grammar breaking out like a rash in its wake.

Whatever you do, celebrate National Grammar Day, and SPOGG, the Society for the Preservation of Good Grammar.

Books Words

Words Matter Week Blog Challenge: Writers That Make My Heart Sing

Wednesday’s blog challenge question for Words Matter Week is:

Writers are people who take isolated words and craft them into memorable phrases, stories, poems and plays. Who are the writers who make your heart sing? What is the magic ingredient?

Different writers appeal to me at different times, and the magic ingredients can be found in different proportions in most of my favorites.

Here are the magic ingredients for me:

  • A sense of possibility
  • A big idea
  • Humor
  • A worldview that I can believe in
  • A wonderful setting (usually foreign)
  • Something unexpected

Writers who make my heart sing:

I love C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien anytime, all the time.

Other authors who’ve had the magic touch at some point in my life (and usually still do– I tend to remain loyal):

  • Madeleine L’Engle (Crosswicks Journals, as well as her middle-grade fiction)
  • Rosemary Sutcliff (Dawn Wind)
  • Edith Wharton
  • Dorothy Gilman
  • E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • Mary Stewart
  • Edward Ormondroyd (David and the Phoenix)
  • Frances Mayes (Under the Tuscan Sun)
  • L. Frank Baum
  • William Butler Yeats
  • Anne Morrow Lindbergh (Gift from the Sea; Journals)
  • Laurie Colwin (Home Cooking)
  • Annie Fellows Johnston (Little Colonel books; Mary Ware)
  • Clair Blank (Beverly Gray series)
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Isak Dinesen

Of course, there’s always a flip side– things you couldn’t pay me to read. I won’t read anything in which an animal is harmed, and I am dismally bored by whiners, navel-gazers, chronically-depressed characters, and insecure people in unhealthy relationships. I confess to a completely low-brow desire to spend my reading time with characters, ideas, and settings I find interesting. Life’s too short to tolerate bores!

You can visit the Words Matter Week website and blog to find more posts from the blog challenge. They’ve been a lot of fun to read.


Setting Up Blogkeeping

Setting up housekeeping in a new blog is fun, but choosing the theme can be the hardest part. Choosing number of columns, colors, and widgets is every bit as interesting as choosing between hardwood and tile, tapestry and leather. It will all be ready soon, and I’ll move in and start blogging about words, words, words…